Blog Coordinator

« Causation via criterial resetting | Main | The Exclusion Argument Excludes Compatibilism Too »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Thanks Tamler. This was a long slog but useful in seeing how agreement that we aren’t libertarian agents still leaves much room for disagreement about the virtuousness (or not) of moral emotions like vengeance and hatred. I thought Harris did a good job of defending a consequentialist view of punishment which, while recognizing the strong intuitive and emotional pull of retributivism, resists elevating our punitive reactivity into a virtue. The more we learn about causes, even in the case of maximally competent moral agents who sometimes make bad decisions (e.g., Tamler's thought experiment about deciding to drive drunk), the more attenuated our retributive emotions (what I’ve called the mitigation response), and the less likely it is we will suppose agents deserve punishment disconnected from having consequentialist benefits. Plus as Harris points out these emotions cause lots of suffering since they easily get out of control, result in tit-for tat violence, and I’d say corrupt our moral intuitions by suggesting that the infliction of suffering is a non-consequentialist good in itself under certain conditions.

Tamler vigorously disputes all of the above: he doesn’t believe more information about causes will have much if any effect on punitive attitudes, nor does he believe it should, since he thinks (along with Jared Diamond and law prof Michael Moore) that such emotions are virtuous (2:22:10) and essential contributors to human flourishing, broadly conceived, and not because they lead to consequentialist benefits. All this, even though he admits there is no “metaphysical or platonic fact about desert”. Rather, it comes down, he says, to what we value as human beings.

Right, but our valuations should be reflective and principled, not pulled straight off the shelf of human reactivity as if that gives them some moral pre-endorsement. The injunction not to inflict unnecessary suffering is a widely held ethical principle that, I think, stands opposed to punishment that serves no consequentialist benefit but merely satisfies our emotion-driven intuitions about desert. Of course one can always claim that satisfying the desire for vengeance counts as such a benefit. But is that the sort of culture we want to be? (perhaps a topic for a future Very Bad Wizard episode).

Goaded by Harris, Tamler avowed he would still deserve a beating and a lifetime of self-recrimination for driving drunk and injuring someone even if his decision to drive under the influence was attributable to cosmic rays (2:20:50). My diagnosis of this ultra self-blame is that as a social species we are naturally and strongly keyed to take our conspecifics, and ourselves, as answerable for norms violations, sometimes at the expense of seeking distal causes for our own behavior, even to the extent of actively suppressing investigations of causes. At first blush we don’t care, and sometimes actively don’t want to know, why the (sane, uncoerced) bastard did it; we just want to see him punished, including ourselves when we fall into this category. All this is explicable from the standpoint of a natural consequentialism in which moral emotions, keyed to judgments about an agent’s competence, serve to guide behaviors that maintain norms.

But this can have very bad side effects, including endorsements of retributivism. We shouldn’t conclude that these emotions justify their non-consequentialist expression, and that this is a moral good, even though that may be how it feels. David Pizarro says at the end (2:29:25):

“I just want to reiterate that I think that understanding causes ought to lead us to things like less hatred. I hope that we can maintain the distinction between a particular moral attitude of blame versus all of the horrible things we might be able do to someone whom we hate...the minimal little notion of justified moral blame that hopefully doesn’t give rise to hate.” And, I would add, hopefully keeps punishment consequentialist while respecting human rights.

There’s at least some evidence that the mitigation response is real, see for instance Shariff et al, “Free Will and Punishment: A Mechanistic View of Human Nature Reduces Retribution” at

The comments to this entry are closed.